Expanding Bullets and the Demise of 12 Gauge Slug

By Randy Wakeman

There is confusion about the desirability of expanding bullets. Small wonder, when expanding bullets are considered inhumane on the battlefield, but grenades and rockets fired from helicopters and drones are not. We apparently can't figure it out, as in many areas it is non-expanding bullets that are prohibited for deer hunting, because they are deemed �inhumane.�


Bullets don't expand in the first place, as in blowing up a balloon. They shorten and deform upon impact. Expansion may well be a more effective marketing term than shorten and deform, but shorten and deform is more representative. The cartridge that drove the American Bison and the grizzly bear to extinction, the .45-70 Government, hardly relied on expansion. The standard load was a 405 grain bullet at 1305 fps muzzle velocity. Its .458 diameter bullet didn't need to expand much, as large bullets don't shrink in diameter.


The .243 Winchester is a good example. Originally designed as a varmint round, it was introduced in 1955. A recovered .243 that has �expanded� to 180% of its original diameter sounds wonderful. Yet, that equates to about .437 in., smaller than our .45-70 Government with zero percent expansion. It isn't that deforming bullets are bad things, quite the opposite. Expansion is good, writes Dr. Martin Fackler, but not at the expense of adequate penetration.


The notion of a deforming bullet in small to medium calibers is a good one. Flatten the trajectory, allowing for easier shot placement, yet create larger temporary and permanent wound cavities upon impact. It is less necessary for deer in big bore cartridges.


It was Jack O'Connor in the 1967 book,The Art of Hunting Big Game in North America, who noted �the specific caliber is the least important of all� and �the most important factor in killing power is the placement of the bullet." O'Connor further observed that Eskimos kill caribou, sheep and polar bears with .22 Hornets and .222's and pioneer Canadians had no trouble acquiring moose with .25-35's and .30-30's.


The 20 gauge gun with a fully rifled barrel shooting saboted bullets is replacing its 12 gauge counterpart. With trajectory essentially identical to the 12 gauge, the 20 gauge is inherently more accurate, better handling and easier to shoot accurately. Federal Barnes load P209 XT1 is published at 1900 fps MV, with a static B.C of 0.205. It is a .45 caliber, 273 grain (5/8 oz.) slug, one that opens in soft tissue with essentially one hundred percent weight retention. Federal .44 Mag. rifle ballistics fair poorly by comparison, as Federal load C44 is a 240 grain hollow point, MV 1760 fps, with a static ballistic coefficient of .170. In terms of trajectory, bullet mass, bullet diameter, tissue disruption, impact velocity and penetration, the 20 gauge slug load is superior. Yet, the .44 Rem. Magnum has long proven to be an effective whitetail and black bear round out of a handgun, much less the 20 inch test barrel used by Federal for the C44A load. Rather than 1760 fps, this same load has a catalog MV of 1230 fps out of a revolver.


It shouldn't be any great surprise that a .45 caliber, 250 grain projectile is an effective whitetail round. It has been obvious for over 25 years, as 100 grains by volume of Pyrodex RS moves a saboted 250 grain, .45 caliber projectile out of a .50 caliber Knight MK-85 muzzleloader right at 1700 fps. Rifled slug guns are finally at what has been the lower end of in-line muzzleloading performance since the mid-1980's.


At less than 150 yards, where 95% or so of deer are harvested, no buck can live on the difference between a .30-30, .243 Winchester, .45-70, .338 Win. Magnum or a saboted 20 gauge slug round. While bullet deformation in soft tissue is more critical with a .243 Winchester than in a .45-70 Government, as bullet weights and diameters increase, it becomes less important. Shot placement and adequate penetration still reign supreme, just as they always have.

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Copyright 2011, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.